Something not unlike what I found myself resisting in Snakes On a Plane is going on in Cowboys and Aliens. Namely, in that earlier film, the one with snakes, the audience was being asked to take a film with an intentionally ridiculous title, one that was perversely literal -- and one which, I admit, I still to this day find genuinely funny -- and apply it to a film that was supposed to be, if not exactly serious, then at least not a joke. In other words, yes, the film is exactly what the title says it's going to be. We're actually kind of not kidding. For myself, I wasn't able or willing to do the kind of work necessary to get past the joke that was that film's central marketing gimmick and accept that it could both be a joke and not a joke. For a film like Snakes On a Plane, that's simply asking too much. Of course, had it been great, that might have been something else entirely, but obviously that was never going to happen.
Cowboys and Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau, is exactly the same thing, only more so. That title puts me in mind of that witheringly exhausting genre of, I don't even know what you'd call it -- wish-fulfillment-fantasy-comedy? -- where one of those geeks that they now have these days says how awesome it would be if robots fought zombies in an underwater kingdom. They're only joking, of course, except are they really? I confess, I've made a joke or two like this in my time, but I hope to find the strength never to do it again, and anyway when I do it I actually am kidding, and don't strive to turn it into a movie that's as straight-faced as Red River, which actually had more laughs, now that I think about it.
Although the truth of it is that I actually kind of liked Cowboys and Aliens. Kind of. The story is very simple, at least the parts you need to pay attention to: you have a mysterious stranger (Daniel Craig) who is quiet and able to inflict violence but would rather not to, and also is suffering from amnesia; a mean and nasty old man (Harrison Ford) who recognizes Craig as a thief who stole his gold; another mysterious character, a lovely young lady (Olivia Wilde) who knows that Craig and the source of his amnesia is vital to her quest; and various other Western types, such as the unassuming businessman (Sam Rockwell) who finds himself forced to pick up arms against an enemy, a wise and kindly preacher (Clancy Brown) who acts as the conscience of the town; the old man's vile son (Paul Dano); the sheriff (Keith Carradine) who's just trying to do his job, and so on. Then they all get attacked by space aliens.
There's not much more to it. Certain secrets are divulged along the way, and character dynamics shift, or whatever the term for that stuff is, but nothing that distracts from the central theme of cowboys fighting aliens. I personally don't have any serious problem with that as an idea. I like some steampunk stuff, after all, and if this is essentially the same thing. The problem I have is with the having-cake-and-also-eating-it aspect of that title versus the film. I know this is based on a comic, and I don't know the tone of that comic, but just in general why scoff at your own idea if your plan is to handle it in a straightforward manner? Until Walton Goggins shows up as an amusingly naive criminal, I'm not sure there are really any jokes in this thing.
Not to harp on the title too much. The film has other problems, such as its weird lack of imagination. I happen to basically enjoy Jon Favreau's films, and I will vigorously defend Iron Man 2 on the grounds that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. One of the things that film's detractors will point out as a shortcoming is the supposed sluggishness of its action scenes, a complaint I find slightly baffling, but okay. If they wanted to shore up their argument by saying it's a common failing with Favreau and pointing to Cowboys and Aliens as an example, then that would be at least something. I can't help but think about Steven Spielberg, whose name is on this film, but of course, as an executive producer, and I think about The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which is maybe Spielberg's worst film (for the record, I like Always and have never seen Hook) and even that has the terrific setpiece with the camper dangling off a cliff and the broken window and the dinosaurs that eat the shit out of the one guy. Now, Lost World also has that terrible bit in the tall grass where you see a bunch of people fleeing the raptors, and one person gets dragged down from underneath the grass, then the raptor tail goes up. Then another guy goes down, up goes the tail. Then another guy goes down, up goes the tail. That scene was unimaginative. The conflicts between cowboys and aliens in Cowboys and Aliens feel like that scene over and over again. The alien spacecraft fighter jet things strafe the cowboys, who run away until one of them (Daniel Craig) is able to blow one of them up, then they leave.
That is until the end, and the final assault by the cowboys on the alien fortress. Which was fun enough. Favreau pulled out some stops for that, I guess, but the film is still left with a curious absence of, I don't know...verve. It's as if the crazy idea of throwing cowboys and aliens together in the same movie was enough. More than enough, really! Who could ask for more than that? Besides, I liked Sam Rockwell a lot -- I wish he could play the same character in another movie -- and it was an odd but interesting experience watching a new film with Harrison Ford in it. I just refreshed my memory about his recent career, and counting Cowboys and Aliens I've seen exactly four of the films he's appeared in since Air Force One. Before that, I'd seen every feature film, plus the Star Wars Holiday Special he'd made going back to 1977, when he made two, one of which, Heroes, I haven't seen. So yes, if you're asking me if I've seen Force 10 From Navarone and Hanover Street, yes, I have. The result of all this being that now, bizarrely, watching Ford put on funny clothes and caper about on screen no longer feels like a natural thing to be doing.
One other thing I'm reminded of is something I read about Made, Jon Favreau's first film as a director, following Swingers, his breakout as a writer and actor. Some film critic remarked of Made that it was very surprising to discover that Jon Favreau's real ambition this whole time was to be John Cassavetes. Now, again, I generally enjoy Favreau's films, but yeah, that guy was wrong.